Ten for Ten from Newfoundland and Labrador (by Kerri Cull)
This list could be longer with subtitles, margin notes and cyber space post-its, and I’m sure there are many fantastic novels by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that I could add. I purposely left out Michael Crummey and Wayne Johnston because their body of work speaks for itself. In no particular order, here is a list of some of the best novels to come out of Newfoundland and Labrador in the past decade.
Sky Waves by Michelle Butler Hallett: In Sky Waves Michelle Butler Hallett tells the story of Nicole Wright who tries to balance her history with her present while navigating a male-dominated radio world and a host of elusive characters. Sky Waves is also about the way we communicate, the way we love and how those concepts intertwine. Using satire and a sophisticated structure, the tireless Butler Hallett tells an intelligent story that expects a lot from its reader. In her first novel, and third publication, she showcases her masterful command of language by way of a worthwhile, Faulkner-esque book.
Down to the Dirt by Joel Thomas Hynes: Down to the Dirt is the first novel by Joel Thomas Hynes and it was birthed from small town Newfoundland kicking and screaming. Meet Keith Kavanagh, a character so salty and sharp-tongued, we have a hard time believing he doesn’t actually exist, and the novel follows him as he gets into a whole lot of trouble while endeavoring to make peace with himself. Hynes’ writing is tough, raw, elegant and beautiful. In his first novel he proves that he is a pro storyteller whose words whip and sting at one point and wrap their arms around you at another. This is a modern classic.
Away from Everywhere by Chad Pelley: Away from Everywhere is a love story, a psychological thriller, and most importantly, a great read. The novel opens at a crash scene and the reader slowly puts the pieces of the story together as Owen tries to do the same with his life. In this tragic novel Pelley takes on themes of self-discovery and family dynamics through the debilitating effects of mental illness and lost love, and he does more than succeed. This novel illustrates the talent of a champion writer whose work we’ll be reading for a long time yet.
February by Lisa Moore: Using the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster as a backdrop for the plot, Moore’s February is an engaging story about loss and how we move through life in its wake. Based on a tragedy in Newfoundland and Labrador’s own history, Moore invites us into the life of one widow as she tries to raise a family and travel through the subsequent decades in only the way mourners do. Moore is the master of description. She can always find the perfect word, the only word really, to most aptly describe a scene, a person, a nuance. Her level of precision and attention to craft is incredible.
Broken Voices by Wilhelmina Fitzpatrick: This novel from Wilhelmina Fitzpatrick is a bold debut. With a heartbreaking story that is set in small town Newfoundland, Fitzpatrick explores how two people are connected and how this connection affects everyone around them becoming more complex as time goes on and creating a nexus of secrecy that can no longer be silenced. The result is an all-too real story that is effortless, terrifying and unforgettable.
Annabel by Kathleen Winter: Kathleen Winter’s highly acclaimed first novel has deserved all the accolades it’s received. Newfoundland and Labrador is generally a very traditional and somewhat isolated area in regards to culture and diversity, and this novel carves a space for those conversations that no other novel has done with a transgendered protagonist at its core. Regardless of all that, Annabel is a good book that we should read because it’s simply that, a good book about our urge to judge what we can’t classify, about our need to store and stack things in neat little boxes, and most importantly, it’s a story about difference, love and acceptance.
Skin Room by Sara Tilley: Skin Room, Sara Tilley’s first publication, is a contemporary coming-of-age novel. Tilley uses Nunavut and St. John’s to tell Teresa Norman’s story of transformation as she attempts to rid herself of shame, find redemption and attain happiness. With flashback and alternating time shifts, we see the young Teresa adjacent to the more experienced Teresa, and we are immediately drawn into her world. The story itself is fantastic and the individual scenes are enhanced by Tilley’s experience as a playwright. Whether it’s describing the texture of raw seal or the taste of a certain beer, she does it with astute attention to sensory detail that makes this book one to be read again and again.
Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant: Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise, with a tortoise at its centre, is an important book to say the least. Not only did it win tons of awards which were all well-deserved but it also changed the way we engage with novels. Audrey Flowers, the loveable, gentle, vulnerable oddball, and her sophisticated tortoise Winnifred, see the world in magnificent ways, and it forces us to see our world and our literature in different ways. Grant is not afraid to play with language which shows in this wonderful, playful, imaginative work. It is the only one of its kind.
Reinventing the Rose by Kenneth J. Harvey: This controversial novel by Kenneth J. Harvey tells the story of Anna Wells who is in a dysfunctional relationship, and when she discovers she’s pregnant, her world becomes something of nightmares. The universal yonic symbol of the rose becomes an eerie reminder of what is at stake: a woman’s right to choose, a man’s right to not parent, and a life that lingers somewhere within Anna and between the walls of a seemingly haunted house in Bareneed. The novel juggles the politics of power showing us how powerless we really are and what we are capable of if we are pushed far enough. Reinventing the Rose is a story that needs to be read and pondered by many.
Double Talk by Patrick Warner: Double Talk is the story of one relationship from two perspectives. The result is a darkly humorous tale of a couple that is torn apart by the everyday stresses of life and time. University life and downtown St. John’s in the 1980s provides the backdrop for characters to explore and meditate on what their lives have become while the reader is along for the ride. This book is alluring and sexy, hilarious and honest. Warner, also a poet, has long made friends with language, and he knows how to mould it into whatever he needs it to be--a fist, a smile, a kiss, and sometimes a smack.
Kerri Cull is from the small mill town of Corner Brook on the West Coast of Newfoundland. She has been a bartender, bookseller, waitress, administrator, radio show host, columnist, instructor, and is the creator of The Book Fridge. She currently lives in Labrador. Her first book is the poetry collection Soak.